Dancing the revolution away
By Pepe Escobar
BEIJING - Red Detachment of Women sounds like a cheap exploitation Hollywood flick. In fact it's a 1964 ballet, one of the "Eight Model Operas" of the National Ballet of China (NBC) and a monster hit during the 1960s Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao Zedong loved it. The plot is a howler; country girl is abused by evil landlord until she escapes and reaches full blossom by joining the glorious revolution.
The NBC is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It's one of the top ballet troupes in the world, on a par with the best the Bolshoi, Paris or New York have to offer. So Red Detachment of Women was back in all its splendor in Beijing this week - a revolutionary Wizard of Oz complete with the reeducation of capitalist roaders, psychedelic cartoon sets and, of course, girls with guns. The great gonzo master Hunter S Thompson, if alive, would have freaked out.
What better than tripping with girls with guns to celebrate China's current post-revolutionary ballet? Even Russian legend Rudolf Nureyev wouldn't be able to keep up. In 2008, there were the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. In 2009, the spectacular parade - including lots of post-modern girls with guns - celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. In 2010, there will be the Shanghai Expo.
And then there's China overtaking Japan as the world's second-largest economy. China overtaking Japan as the biggest automaker in the world. Shanghai overtaking London as the world's second-largest financial hub before 2020 (according to a recent survey among 600 global businessmen). China becoming the top economy in the world not long after 2020. The list goes on as the center of economic power and global geopolitics swings from the West back to Asia, after a short intermission of 200 years.
Just like Red Detachment of Women, China's new ballet involves discipline, education and hard work. Unlike the 1960s, it also involves pride in China's ancient civilization and a relentless drive for modern technology. But above all, it is propelled by the same stamina of no-holds-barred nationalism.
I wanna be converted
During United States President Barack Obama's recent visit to China, it was quite a sight to follow his gleaming motorcade alongside a deserted Chang'an avenue at night, policed at every 10 meters, like a scene in a Hollywood blockbuster choreographed by Michael Mann. But nothing would compare to the scene at the state dinner when the People's Liberation Army band played I just called to say I love you. Once the Chinese Communist Party has lifted more than 400 million people out of poverty within one generation - the greatest source of its legitimacy - they can surely deviate from martial themes to a little Stevie Wonder.
What they cannot allow themselves is to not worry about Washington's fiscal and financial mess. Premier Wen Jiabao has been losing sleep over China's enormous US holdings, especially what concerns those staggering US$2.27 trillion of foreign exchange reserves - two-thirds invested in dollar-denominated assets.
China's colossal reserves anyway are relative. When the yuan is fully convertible, they will allow China's Central Bank to honor conversions into foreign exchange from both Chinese and foreign companies. For all the fuss in the US, convertibility is inevitable. Beijing says it will happen before 2020. But it could happen as early as 2015.
Why 2015? Hu Xiao-Lian, the respected head of the aptly named SAFE (State Administration of Foreign Exchange) was switched a few months ago back to the Central Bank in a special department to oversee the yuan's convertibility.
Until then, China will be dancing a triple-bill ballet. Using the yuan in regional exchanges; using its reserves to ink agreements with Asian central banks, in what is called an "exchange swap"; and struggling to create a new global financial system based on a basket of currencies.
China has already inked deals with five countries - South Korea, Malaysia, Belarus, Indonesia and Argentina, plus its Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Fellow BRIC member Brazil is next. (BRIC comprises Brazil, Russia, India and China.)
In terms of regional exchange, it's still a minuet. It only applies to Chinese companies based in Shanghai and in the four cities of the Pearl River Delta, the "factory of the world": Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Zuhai. And as countries ago, apart from Hong Kong and Macau, it applies only to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It's still early days for the process, because the yuan is still indexed to the US dollar; thus these exchanges still depend on the US dollar.
But there are no doubts over the long-term objective, as put by Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of the Central Bank of China and the de facto second most-powerful man in the country; the "adequate objective is to create an international reserve currency disconnected from individual nations and capable of being stable in the long-term".
Fierce critics like Andy Xie, former China specialist at Morgan Stanley, insist the health of China's economy is artificial - because it is moved by stimulus packages and cycles of speculative bubbles. Meanwhile, while the dogs bark the Chinese caravan inexorably dances away towards ever more auspicious growth.
Where the action is
It's a non-stop whirling dervish dance of expanding business and colossal infrastructure investment. Forget about the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace. The 21st-century Beijing dances to the rhythm of Beijing's central business district (CBD). Just under four square kilometers in Chaoyang district, this is China's Corporation Central, home to more than 15,000 companies and organizations, including 130 Fortune 500 companies, 203 foreign financial institutions, 36 regional headquarters, 167 global media organizations and the offices of NASDAQ and the stock exchanges of New York, Tokyo and Seoul. It's also home to CCTV and its fabled Rem Koolhaas tower, which the locals dub wei fang ("dangerous building").
The "concept" of a Beijing CBD was born less than 10 years ago. The Beijing municipal government included it in the city's 10th five-year plan (2001-2005). Eighty percent of the planned infrastructure, building and urban green space in this business-friendly steel and glass paradise is complete. The CBD's counterpart in West Beijing is Zhongguancun, a sort of mini-Silicon Valley. The CBD's success was so resounding that it will be expanded and effectively doubled in size up to 2016, all this respecting strict "low carbon" guidelines.
Then there's the planned 50-kilometer-long Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macau six-lane bridge - the longest sea bridge in the world, including a 29 kilometer oversea pass and a 6 kilometer tunnel under the South China Sea. Construction started this week. When finished in 2016, at a cost of $10.5 billion, it will take only about 25 minutes to go from Hong Kong to Macau.
Heaven up here
Chinese culture comes from a nomadic tradition followed by an agricultural tradition. Heaven was always worshipped because it was regarded both as a dominant force and a dependent means in terms of food production and human survival. Heaven and earth are one. Confucianism talks of "three basic substances", tian (heaven), di (earth) and ren (human). Taoism stresses "four great parts", tian, di, ren and the Tao ("the origin of heaven and earth" and "the mother of the myriad things", according to the Tao te king). Those faithful to monotheistic religions will be perplexed to know that the Tao precedes god in time and exists everywhere in space.
In China, tian as heaven and ren as human interact so closely that the concept of oneness between the two was already established at the time of Mencius (372-289 BC.)
The Communist Party has done all it can to find a palpable, easily accessible, "to get rich is glorious" translation of the Mandate of Heaven. For all of China's modern dance infatuation with Audis and Pradas and Omega watches, the West might as well go to sleep: China will not Westernize in the sense of a "socialist market economy" leading to Western-style democracy. The state in China is something else - the guardian of civilization; its utmost priority is to protect China's unity. Heaven and earth as one. But that also involves plurality.
There's no way to understand China without understanding the i-Ching. It's all about opposition and correlation - that's how the world works. A key example is how "one country, two systems" solved the contradiction of the return of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997 - still separated by a physical, administrative and economic border. The broader objective was to allow the reunification of Taiwan.
The same applies to "market socialist economy". The concept is ridiculed in the West. But interpreted under an i-Ching perspective, it means a process along which, from an entirely socialist economy, China has adopted methods of market economy. This process does not follow a teleological model, with a fixed objective. It's not a transition - it's a mutation.
In the long run, as the collective leadership in Beijing knows, the real danger for China is not the growth of social inequality per se (the 10 eastern provinces, with only 9.5% of China's land and 35.6% of the population, account for 55.5% of gross domestic product - GDP - and growing) - but a dramatic drop in the turbo-ballet of economic growth leading to hordes of unemployed migrant workers. Here lies the difference stressed by Mao between the main contradiction and the main aspect of the contradiction.
Then, on the global stage, there's the newly unveiled Hu doctrine. President Hu Jintao has now officially theorized on how to correctly "construct a harmonious world" and to be involved in "enthusiastic participation" in global affairs (See China unveils its new worldview Asia Times Online, December 11, 2009.) Coming from as high above in the state hierarchy as possible this is as scientific as it gets.
Chang Xiuze - a member of the National Development and Reform Commission - describes China's concept of development, or "scientific outlook on development" as how "to realize, with a people-oriented perspective, economic development, social development, a harmonious development of the relations between man and nature and an all-round human development".
If all goes well, this will lead to a "moderately prosperous society" by 2020, when a staggering 1.44 billion people are predicted to reach a per capita GDP of around $6,000 a year (and then it would take only 30 extra years for China to reach the per capita GDP of Singapore or Japan).
So correct application of the "scientific outlook on development" - the turbo-ballet of economic growth and massive job creation - reinforces the legitimacy of the Communist Party, thus allowing it to be ever more involved with "enthusiastic participation" in global affairs.
The leadership admits a crucial shortage of resources, especially energy (oil and gas; China imports 47% of its oil) directly affects economic development, and that China ranks far below Russia, another fellow member of BRIC, and also below Brazil. They also acknowledge "social contradictions as a result of imbalanced development between town and country and among regions" as a "major strategic issue".
So, according to official ideology, the trick is to find the "right degree of harmonization" between the "three foreigns" (foreign trade, foreign development and foreign currency) and the "three-izations" (industrialization, urbanization and marketization).
As Asia Times Online's Sinograph columnist Francesco Sisci points out, China's miracle is a question essentially of stamina - how to keep dancing non-stop, much like the under-pressure heroine in Red Detachment of Women. Milestones keep being swept away. The setting up of four special economic zones in 1980; the turbo-charging of the "open up" policy with the Little Helmsman's Deng Xiaoping's tour of the south in 1992; the "Go West" strategy launched in 2000; China entering the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001, when the opening up of only a few regions became the opening up of the whole of China.
China's strategic master plan, a "large developing socialist country with an ancient civilization", as Chang Xiuze puts it, is to become an industrialized economy by 2020. "From 1978 to 2020, after more than 40 years of development, the mode of development with Chinese characteristics will surely be crowned with achievements marking a historical state," he adds. If not the West, developing countries from Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia, not to mention Russia, have little room to doubt the merits of "authoritarian modernization".
Now, about that 'enthusiasm'
The European Union (EU) in Brussels qualifies 2010 in terms of relations with China as "relation therapy". Gustaaf Geeraerts, director of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, sees it "as a matter of finding a remedy against the kind of diplomatic schizophrenia in which shortsighted policies of the member states counteract the proselytizing European Commission". Translation: the "strategic axis" between China and Europe seems to be going nowhere.
What really matters is the complex and subtle trilateral US-China-EU relationship. The collective leadership in Beijing is quite wary of the concept of a Group of Two - seen as a wily new US attempt to regain initiative by harnessing the strategic role and influence of China and thus make up for its relative decline.
It's under this light that Obama's recent visit to China is being interpreted by some Europeans and Chinese. Did Obama come just to perform his own version of "I just called to say I love you?" Not really. He came as an ambassador to open China for Wall Street. The road map was provided by none other than US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, in a piece published by Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, "The Road Ahead for Asia's Economies". Essentially, Geithner has seen the writing on the wall - the US economy languishing in a low-grade depression for years to come; thus the need for the Wall Street casino economy crowd to hit juicy China.
Beijing sees the new US strategic thinking of showering more "responsibility" on China as restricting the growing strength of both China and the EU and the development of a China-EU strategic cooperation. They interpret more "responsibility" on China as more "restriction". And they fully realize Washington has not discarded the containment of China.
The EU is China's largest trading partner - now ahead of the US. And China is now the EU's second-largest trading partner. But crucially, there is still a lack of mutual trust. As Beijing sees it, the EU does not want China to increase its role in the global financial and economic architecture. Closer examination of Brussels reveals plenty of mixed feelings about the turbo-ballet of China's economic strength.
Impervious to all, and imperial as a true Middle Kingdom, China will continue to perform its relentless ballet. As Giovanni Arrighi wondered in his formidable 2007 book, Adam Smith in Beijing, China can let the US deplete itself - militarily and financially - in the Pentagon's never-ending "war on terror"; can keep on getting wealthier providing goods and credit to an increasingly incoherent superpower; and can use its market and its national wealth to seduce valuable allies - including US multinationals - and thus inexorably become the center of a new world order, without necessarily becoming a military superpower.
Globally, China's "enthusiastic" ballet is perfecting a performance that is slowly gaining momentum; more multilateral cooperation among the BRICS, the only way for them to stand up against the US-Euro axis and/or to get compromises and meaningful concessions from them.
Ever since the WTO conference in Hong Kong in 2005, the BRICs have detached themselves from the global South; they are playing in the major league now. Exit Hobbes, enter Kant. No more a single hyperpower; instead a new Kantian world ruled by negotiation. Beijing seems to understand the challenge - to simultaneously advance relations with both the US and EU while strengthening to the maximum cooperation among BRIC members. The Copenhagen climate change summit is a crucial test of this new Chinese "enthusiasm".
Sooner rather than later, the NBC may even contemplate an updated version of Red Detachment of Women; instead of guns, girls in Pradas, Guccis and Jimmy Choos, sipping champagne and juxtaposed against steel and glass sets, enthusiastically driving their Lamborghinis and dancing many revolutions away, unifying heaven and earth towards ever-more auspicious wealth.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.